Malaysian 370 and the Land of Oz.

Since we first considered here what didn’t happen to Malaysian Flight 370, there’s been a virtual flood of “theories” proposing what did.

The problem is, all of them start out with “it’s possible that” (rather than “the facts indicate”), from which a thinking person could only conclude what “might” have happened–with no better chance of knowing what actually did. Worse, once the boundaries are stretched to include “possible” and “might” as operative terms, you no longer have an investigation at all; rather, you have a piece of creative writing.

So much of what has been advanced as “theory” lately falls into that category, and those who are not airline flight operations insiders are most vulnerable to what is no doubt their good faith desire to find answers. But, with neither the technical background nor the aviation experience to separate what’s plausible from what isn’t, the results obscure the very truth they search for in the first place.

Malaysian authorities brief the press.

Let’s start with the most recent red herring “released” by Malaysian authorities–“the big left turn,” which supposedly “proves” that the turn was deliberately programmed into the flight computers, presumably by someone with nefarious intent.

In a word, that’s meaningless. There are just too many active and passive ways for “the big left turn” to be executed, even with no “programming” by what they insinuate was a rogue pilot. For example, look at the photo below:


The letters to the left are all navigation waypoints, composed of four or five character words representing geographic navigational fixes. Notice the waypoint “PROUD,” followed by the word “then,” which is atop the five empty boxes?

Below that, see the words, “Route Discontinuity?” That is the aircraft’s Flight Management System (FMS) telling me, the pilot, that I haven’t told it where to proceed after PROUD. In other words, there’s a break in the route and if I don’t fill those five empty boxes, the FMS will execute a big left turn (or right, depending on the shortest distance due to winds) and backtrack along the route to the points it came from.

And that’s just one possible, passive real time cause for “The Big Left Turn” so many theorists–including the Malaysian authorities and a news-starved press corps rushing to fill dead air–inexplicably point to as proof of some sort of deliberate, diabolical course programming.

Also, for some unfounded reason, the Malaysian authorities insist that “such a drastic turn could only be done by the autopilot coupled to the Flight Management System.”

Power control is key to airspeed.

Absolute nonsense. Daily, flight by flight I and hundreds of airline pilots hand fly all manner of climbs, descents and turns at all altitudes and speeds. That’s what we do.

Which brings me to the newest red herring that has the press panting and Malaysian authorities puffing up: the captain’s flight simulator video game. Supposedly, they’re going to search the game’s memory to see if the captain had “planned or practiced programming or flying” the Dreaded Big Left Turn.

Seriously? A captain with 18,000 flight hours needs to “practice” a left turn, or rehearse the FMS direct track to a waypoint? Which leads from the ridiculous to the absurd: no career pilot would need or want to “rehearse” a task that is on the level of an average person turning left into their own driveway. Even worse, accepting that the Malaysian authorities are investigating this as a serious clue is to accept that such a fundamentally meaningless red herring even bears investigation.

Once you do, it’s down the rabbit hole: “might” and “could” substitute for “did,” “assumptions” displace facts, which leads to conclusions that hold water like a sieve. Meanwhile, as the Malaysian authorities proffer useless leads, contradicting themselves with their own red herrings, inconsistencies and half truths–while the real investigative trail goes cold, and gets old.

What would motivate Malaysian authorities to divert public scrutiny to such empty yet showy “revelations?” Could it be to deflect attention from their top to bottom mishandling of the incident since the first minute: if, as the Malaysian authorities finally admitted, their military radar detected an unplanned, unauthorized penetration of their airspace by an uncommunicative jet at 35,000, why did the Malaysian Air Force not scramble fighters to intercept this very clear violation of their airspace and threat to their population at large?

Malaysian Air Force F-18

If they had (yes, their Air Force has fighters and they are guided by the very radar that detected the straying airliner) no one today would be searching for Malaysian 370–because they would have followed it and determined their course and intentions.

It would seem less embarrassing for government and aviation authorities to paper over that glaring failure with sideshows like a crewmember’s flight simulator, or which pilot spoke last on the radio, or a mysterious Big Left Turn–which is probably why they’re doing exactly that.

And into the dead silence left by a complete lack of real evidence, come the voices of those who propose creative theories whose flames are fanned by social media with the nonsensical equivocation, “well, nothing else makes any more sense,” or “you can’t prove this didn’t happen.”

For example, some pundits propose there “might” have been a “fire,” which “could possibly” explain the transponder being “off.” Not “turned off,” in this scenario seemingly validated mostly by the way Hollywood portrays cockpit electrical failures: sparks, lights flicker out like in your house during a thunderstorm, then someone barks at a radio, “Ground control, come in please! Omigod–it’s dead!”

But a Boeing jet is not like your house, nor a Hollywood make-believe cockpit. There are multiple power sources and current routings, all designed to swap sources and even types of power to vital equipment–especially to communications and safety gear, including radios and firefighting systems.

And even if there were a fire, a turn toward land and an immediate descent with a mayday call is as instinctive to pilots as breathing and, in my Boeing jet–just like theirs–under most conditions I can set it up to perform the descent and level off safely even without me maintaining consciousness. That’s the way airliners are designed to fly, that’s the way professional pilots fly them.

And as my colleague Jeremy Giguere (he pilots The Big Kahuna, the Boeing-747) notes, Swissair 155 had a fire that destroyed the aircraft–but they talked with controllers for a full 15 minutes as they headed for land.

Fire? Sinister flight path reprogramming? All come under the venerable pilot term “WAG,” which translates to “Wild Ass Guess,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

So let me be clear: I don’t know what happened to Flight 370–and nor does anyone else. That’s because there are no facts from which to draw conclusions and until there are, I won’t attempt to wring fact from fiction.

To do so is to enter the Land of Oz where trees throw apples and winged monkeys dart about the sky, and Dreaded Big Left Turns plus Fire “possibilities” create a chaos that obscures what really ought to be a quiet, diligent search for facts and truth, when or if ever they are discovered.

Despite the shameful Malaysian bungling and the pointless social media circus following this puzzling tragedy, I believe in time the real facts will come out. Then a properly conducted investigation will yield a probable cause that will allow the aviation industry and flying community to make air travel safer.

The 200 lost souls and the loved ones they left behind deserve nothing less.

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46 Responses to “Malaysian 370 and the Land of Oz.”

  1. Bill Brandt Says:

    A few have compared this to Amelia Earhart’s disappearance in 1937. But at least some heard Earhart radio her intentions – trying to find Howland Island.

    Good point about the failure of the Malaysian Air Force to follow up.

    For every scenario people have put forward (some using the WAG methodology and some going further with the SWAG * methodology, you can find a counterpoint.

    But, as you say, there is so little factual information.

    * Scientific Wild Ass Guess

    • Interesting comparison to Amelia Earhart! I hope a century or so of technical progress will allow us to find this plane–but this one’s in the deepest, roughest seas in the world.

  2. jeremiahandrews Says:

    Last night on Coast to Coast a.m. an anonymous pilot spoke to these theories. One speculation was that the plane did fly on, and landed on foreign soil somewhere in the Middle East or Africa (Mogadishu) came up in conversation. Anyways, the plane is on the ground, was refueled, packed and took off for a second location and purported to be used at a later date for something terrorism related. (And also that the plane is on the ground camouflaged somewhere) No mention of passenger fatalities, or where they ended up.

    BBC has listed the top ten theories as to what may have happened. Nobody seems to know what happened, but speculation is rife. Tonight I read from Art Bell’s website that the plane went down and all the passengers are lost. And that governments could have tracked this plane even without tracking codes or flight plans. The super military industrial complex is on the case.

    Could it be that yes the plane flew on and the intelligence community knows that and all this misinformation is put out so as not to alert the terrorists or purported hijackers that we are on to them? If the flight was hijacked and terrorists are behind it, they say, that they won’t claim responsibility for a partial victory and IF this plane made it to the ground and will be able to make a strike somewhere, only then after the total destruction takes place, claim responsibility.

    What are the chances that this plane did fly on, over countries that might have let it fly, therefore lending credence to the on the ground theory, and nobody wants to admit that they did that so as not to give away their secrets and/or lack of security.

    The Indian ocean is Big and Deep. If that plane flew on for hours, it seems to me that maybe it did find land and IS somewhere, and somebody has the goods, but is not willing to give them up for their own security reasons?

    Would love to hear what you can say about all this. Since we are on the topic.

    Thanks – Jeremy In Montreal.

  3. […] Wenn es keine Fakten gibt, dann wird spekuliert, so auch jetzt. Aber nur die allerwenigsten dieser Spekulationen haben Hand und Fuß. Fast alle beziehen sich darauf, was möglich wäre, aber nicht wofür es Indizien gibt (vergleiche hierzu ) […]

  4. Karsten Topp Says:

    As always it’s not wghat they tell you, it’s what they NOT tell you and it’s about overspecified messages. Like Obama saying “We do not spy on the Prime Ministers of our closest allies” – but we do spy on anyone else in the government and especially on the Prime Minister’s Personal Assistant and that sentence was not – technically – a lie.
    I do not think a professional Pilot has to “practice” ILS approaches to any airport on his own, private FS – but what about VFR approaches to airfields he’s never ever been. Like Diego Garcia?
    Also, what bothers me is that they silently drop threads from the media… and they leave out vital stuff. How much jet fuel was actually aboard the plane? No cargo manifest? WTF?
    All in all, we KNOW not much.
    We KNOW the last communication between ATC and the plane.
    We KNOW the plane coninoued to fly for a prolonged period of time.
    According to latest news report, we KNOW someone reprogrammed the autopilot about 17 mins before the last comms… another Red Herring?

  5. Just excellent work, Chris. Did you send it to the NYT?

  6. News reports have been so poorly written! I think the families and flying public deserve to know a few basic things such as, what is the current search area? Do they or do they not have a line of position from a satellite? How much of the search area has radar coverage?

  7. roberthenryfischat Says:

    Reblogged this on robert's space and commented:

  8. Thank you for the calm, sensible view. Media should learn to shut up until the facts are in but that doesn’t sell advertising space.

  9. I’ve always found Occam’s Razor applies particularly well to aviation issues. But, sadly, vast conspiracy theories make better teevee, especially as 24 hour news outlets compete for an ever shrinking piece of viewing pie.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  10. Mike in PER Says:

    Chris, is it possible for a pilot to enter a flight plan into the FMS with a discontinuity and then fly that route without some sort of warning via ACARS or other mechanism being sent?

    Also, if the plane then flies that route, gets to the discontinuity and then performs a U turn and back tracks, what happens when it gets to it’s origin, in this instance Kuala Lumpur airport?

    • Discontinuities are normal in FMS flight plans. The one in the photo is planned, being at the end of the normal route (called a “clearance limit fix”) and the approach procedure. We need clearance beyond that fix from air traffic control, so we anticipate closing the discontinuity with a new clearance from ATC, or just take over manually and fly assigned vectors.

  11. Very illuminating, as always. Thank you for the perspective on the Big Left Turn and the simulator. Your theory on why the Malaysian authorities are making such a big deal of it certainly makes a lot of sense.

  12. I am in total agreement with your POV. One of two facts remain. Either the plane crashed 10 days ago or it landed and is going to be re-purposed.

    Should it be re-purposed, how difficult would it be to acquire the quantity of fuel necessary? Could it take off and fly again without any maintenance? Could the Actors disable the engine “pinging” signature?

    • Not sure about the hypothetical regarding re-purposing the 777. It’s like a conversation I had with a TV reporter yesterday who asked me if the Flight Data Recorder could be disabled from the cockpit. I answered honestly: I have no idea–I never thought of doing so. I just don’t think in those terms; I concentrate fully on standard, safe flight procedures.

  13. As a retired FAA Controller, it is a true pleasure to actually find something written with authority and common sense in reference to an aviation issue. Thank you!

    • And you know as a controller that it’s just routine for a crew coasting out overwater to say, “Thanks–goodnight” as they leave radar coverage and go to HF position reporting and flight following. It even makes sense that the last transmission was from the F/O–the captain typically flies the first leg (I usually do) so the F/O would be managing the radios. The Malaysian authorities imply some significance to this–but there really is none.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I owe my daily success at work in the air to the good work my ATC colleagues do 24 hours a day, coast to coast.

  14. peggywillenberg Says:

    Finally someone with a rational approach to this sad situation. While watching the latest “breaking news” yesterday I commented to my husband “I hope Chris Manno puts out something on this awful situation so we can make some sense of it”. Thank you for doing just that.

  15. Thanks for saying this: “don’t know what happened to Flight 370–and nor does anyone else. That’s because there are no facts from which to draw conclusions and until there are, I won’t attempt to wring fact from fiction.”
    So much noise about it all. Those poor families deserve answers – even if it takes time. Meanwhile, please people, just wait.
    Well done

  16. I appreciate your astute and experienced insight into this mystery. I’m wondering if you would use that same fact-based approach to the 911 mystery – untrained pilots preforming spectacular feats, two plane crashes without any apparent wreckage and hijacked planes flying freely without military interception.
    You mentioned waiting for the facts to be made clear and a following inquiry that will wrap up this mystery for some resolution on your part.
    Well, we had an 911 inquiry and commission that didn’t address the gaping holes in the accepted story because those facts never made it to daylight.
    Why would your facts and following inquiry be any different in this case?

  17. BIG THANK YOU. I only read your comments. Rest I consider them as Media Gossip. One day there is going to be a FILM. You must direct that film from A to Z. Dr.Asoka

  18. […] A very well thought out post on speculation and Malaysian Airlines flight 370 […]

  19. I too read on the news earlier that the maylasian government was looking at deleted simulator files. All I could do was just roll my eyes. Why would a real pilot need to practice anything on a simulator is what I was thinking. For those that don’t know much about flight sim, yes, there are going to be tons of deleted files. Flight sim,or rather the programs and add-ons you can use with it can hog a lot of memory. When the government looks at his simulator they will probably be shocked to see that he might have a real weather type program,or a live atc program,or scenery add -ons. Also, I don’t think this plane has been refueled and hidden somewhere. Someone would have saw this plane refueling at an airport and came forward by now. I have no idea what caused it to crash, yes I think it has crashed.

  20. Could a crack in the fuselage that the FAA warned about account for what happened to this flight? Could the pilots have started to react and then become unconscious? I’m thinking of what happened to Payne Stewart. Might the plane have been waiting for a code like you described above, and without that, then started to return home? If no one lands the plane when it gets to home, what does the plane do then? What would this say about the flight path? Would that be too obvious to hide? Would love to hear what you have to say revolving around this line of inquiry.

    • Also Southwest Flight 182 had a crack and caused the plane to depressurize and lose altitude. Why isn’t this possibility more of a story? Wish a pilot would comment.

  21. As Sherlock Holmes said, “One must never twist facts to suit theories. One may only twist theories to suit facts.”

  22. Ghazala-ex-stewardess Says:

    Thanks Chris for the write up. My own observation and question of whole situation is ” why isn’t anybody talking about cell phones of the passengers! Or even of the crew! Way technology is today wherever you travel your cell phone is tracked to the country you have landed in. At least thats what happens with me whenever i land in another country or arrive back home. Each time i receive greetings message from the server for using their services in UK etc.How come more than 200 cell phones have not been tracked???

  23. Damon Hynes Says:

    Dean Martin. Loved that movie.

  24. 2 words. Alien. Abduction. It’s the only rational explanation. I’m calling Wolf Blitzer with my iReport now! 😉

    Great read as always. Thanks.

  25. I find the whole idea of hijacking the 777 to “repurpose” it completely ridiculous. If you wanted a large plane to weaponize, I think there would be a lot easier ways to get one than this. Look at all the old planes sitting in mothball fleets. I bet you could get an old 747-100, or 200 or a dc-10 pretty could also probably buy an old military transport off of a former Russian client state pretty easily. This “repurpose” scenario makes very little sense to me.

  26. Jerry Sterner Says:

    Captain Manno, a comment from the “pointy end” is appreciated. As things will probably unfold I am looking forward to your input.

  27. […] Malaysian flight 370, passenger. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  28. Cedarglen Says:

    Outstanding. Thanks Chris. -C.

  29. Thanks, Chris. More clear eyed information in a sea of confusion and bloviating by government officials in Malaysia.

  30. Tini von Allwoerden Says:

    Thank you for this xx

  31. The bottom line on the “news”:

    They need 500 gallons of “news” soup, they have one cube of truth bouillon…

    Idiot Brand Cheap Filler it is.

  32. It’s possible the cabin depressurised and the lack of FMS entry meant the big left turn…but what happens once the jet backtracks alongs it’s previous points…does just fly along those points, and keep turning?

  33. Just saw on CNN that the first lawsuit was already filed against Boeing by one of the family members of mh 370. Seems like they’re putting the “cart before the horse” here. They don’t even have a plane or any bodies yet, but it MUST be all Boeings fault. Seems like a money grab to me.

    • They’re victims of a US law firm that will take 80% of any settlement. Because 3 of the passengers were Americans. That is truly obscene.

  34. Nice summary. Pretty hard to find a theory that fits the few known facts.

    One sad reality is that Twitter will now drive press investigations, as Tweeters have no responsibility for fact checking. This has created major problems at the public interface stage and will need to be factored into all future investigations.

    It’s easy to criticise from a heavily populated area with massive established infrastructure. The Indian Ocean isn’t one of them. If you get on a plane between Asia and Australia, you’re not in one. That’s a geographic issue, not a regulatory one.

    I hope that the necessary changes can be made to reporting systems, etc. , globally, for future incidents of this type. Wishing for it a posteriori is Quixotic. Every safety system in place in the US is a result of a fatality too.


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